Tomb Raider: The game becomes the story

by manylaughs on March 14, 2013

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Lara’s journey begins.

This is a story. It’s a story about a girl. It’s the origin story of Lara Croft, the story of her transformation from budding, but naive, archaeologist to tough-as-titanium-nails tomb raider. It’s one of the best stories ever written for gaming.

Tomb Raider is an evolutionary step forward in gaming, further blurring the boundaries between gameplay and storytelling. As you play the game, you are with Lara every step of the way. When she struggles for a handhold on a ledge, you feel a surge of panic. When she gets smacked around by a thug, her fear is palpable. You don’t just casually hit the reset button when she dies – you cringe, part of you feeling like you failed her. And when she yells out in defiance, “That’s right. Run, you bastards. I’m coming for you all!”, you know a hero is born and every bit of your being cheers her on.

Crystal Dynamics, the developers of Tomb Raider, delivers an incredibly immersive gaming experience. Tomb Raider is an amazing achievement on nearly every level.

Here’s Tomb Raider’s report card:

The story – A+

Tomb Raider’s heart and soul is its strong story. Rhianna Pratchett and Susan O’Connor deliver an archetypal origin story echoing the birth of nearly every hero in fiction or myth.

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Lara Croft is not a hero at the beginning of the story. She’s an archaeologist hoping to make her first important find. She hangs out with her friends and looks to her companions for help. When the crew is shipwrecked on an island with dangers everywhere, Lara has to change to survive. She has to get tough, find her courage, conquer her fears, and save her friends. She’s put through a crucible of trials – learns how to survive; climbs to incredible heights; and battles wolves, madmen, and demons. The trials shape her and mold her into Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, one of the greatest heroes in gaming.

It’s a engaging tale, that keeps the action moving and makes you want to keep playing to see what happens next.

The atmosphere – A+

It would be overly simplistic to say the sound is great, the graphics are awesome and the scenery is pretty. With this game, the music, the sound effects, the graphic effects, and the environment art perfectly compliment each other, creating an ideal atmosphere. A simple walk into the depths of a tomb is full of sounds and imagery – the dripping of water, the flickering and fluttering of the torch in your hand, and even the sound of Lara breathing. You believe you’re walking into a tomb, because the designers hit every auditory and visual queue precisely.

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And when things get intense, like during a gun fight, the game turns into a whirlwind for the senses:  barrels of oil explode; bridges collapse, their boards and beams snapping; the wind howls; people yell at you and each other; the tempo of the music picks up; and Lara starts breathing harder. There’s so much going on your eyes and ears go into a joyous overload.

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The atmosphere of Tomb Raider is a masterful blend of music, sound, graphics and environmental art, all perfectly melded to give you an incredibly intense gaming experience.

Gameplay – A-

The first thing you might notice about Tomb Raider, or maybe not notice, is how well Crystal Dynamics has eliminated all the screen clutter that reminds you you’re playing a game. There’s no quest tracker, no health bar, no XP bar, and no mini map. When you look at the screen, you look at Lara and the world she’s in.

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They get around this by giving you visual clues – if you’re almost dead, for instance, the screen will be bloody and the graphics shift to black and white. You use your survival instincts to tell you where objectives are – press the Q key and important objectives and clues are highlighted on the screen.

The amazing thing is how little there is to remind you you’re playing a game. Even the cut-scenes are integrated so smoothly into the gameplay it’s not right to call them cut scenes: more than a few times they’ll fool you and make you think you’re still playing.

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The one area where the gameplay suffers is when Lara has to slalom. Without spilling any spoilers, she might end up sliding down a hill and have to avoid a series of obstacles. The controls are a bit skittish and more than once you’ll be left wondering what you should do. It’s a bit of a weak point in the game, but it’s not too bad and the skittish controls do give you a sense things aren’t totally under your control, and maybe that was the designers’ intent.

Combat – A+

Combat in Tomb Raider is so seamless, so smooth, it’s easy to take it for granted and overlook the beauty of its design. When you move into a combat situation, Lara does what you’d expect anyone to do when people start shooting at you – she takes cover and draws her weapon. As you move her about the battlefield she takes cover behind boxes and walls and stairs, whatever is available. You don’t have to tell Lara with a keyboard command – she just does it.

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When Lara is hit she doesn’t just lose some health, either. Depending on how hard she’s hit, she might be knocked back or spun around. You’ll sometimes find yourself a little disoriented from the blows, further adding to the sense of reality.

Your weapons are the stuff you would scrounge from the island – a bow, a climbing axe and some crappy guns – there are no super-machine guns or silliness like that. Every weapon you get feels grounded in reality, but they’re all a blast – pardon the pun – to fight with.

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Everything about the design of combat in Tomb Raider is intended to make combat as smooth and realistic as possible. There’s nothing to take you out of the experience of being Lara Croft. Everything that might remind you you’re playing a game is minimized as much as possible. Nothing you do in combat jolts you back to your own reality. That’s a marvelous achievement.

Platforming – A+

Crystal Dynamics has honored Lara’s platforming roots, but they’ve eliminated the more irritating aspects of traditional platforming. Timing is still important, but it’s rare you’ll end up in situations where you have to repeatedly do a jump or climb over and over. You’ll never feel like you there’s something wrong with your keyboard, because you’re doing the same jump for the bazillionth time.

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Instead, Crystal Dynamics gives you a platforming experience that’s about action. Lara keeps the action and the story going, jumping from rooftop to rooftop, climbing obstacles, swinging from flag posts. You feel like Jason Bourne running across the rooftops of Tangiers or Daniel Craig’s James Bond running through construction sites.

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Lara’s 20th-century platforming roots are gone. That’s a good thing. Instead, Lara Croft is a 21st century, parkour-running hero, and that’s awesome.

Tombs – A

Tomb Raider wouldn’t be Tomb Raider without tombs, of course.

All the tombs are puzzles. They’re all challenging enough and hard enough so you feel like you’ve accomplished something when you complete them. The tombs are optional to the story, but they’re worth a lot of XP and they usually give you a region treasure map as loot, so they’re well worth doing.

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They’re a bit disappointing at the end, though. When you loot a tomb’s treasure chest you don’t actually pull anything out of the chest. There’s no sense you actually get something. In fact, if you’re not paying attention, you might miss the notice that you got a ton of XP and a new map.

The loot animation needs a visual showing Lara actually holding up a map and, maybe, stuffing loot into her pocket.

Content – B

The only serious negative about Tomb Raider is it’s just too short. The content and pacing feels right for the story. It’s okay if the designers wanted the pace of the game to play out closely with each step in the story. Some games have so many side quests and pointless objectives the story gets buried by the content. That doesn’t happen with Tomb Raider. The pacing is perfect.

But once you get to the end, Tomb Raider really needs more to do. You can get through the entire story in about 16 hours without even trying too hard, and that’s not enough. There needed to be some bonus content – a free DLC, another small adventure to play through, or more tombs.

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Final grade – A

Tomb Raider is a great story, a deeply immersive gaming experience and an incredible achievement on almost every gaming level. It just needs a little more content.

Welcome back, Lara.

 

 

 

 

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